TFC notebook: Not in a must-win situation, Greg Vanney says

The referee issues a red card to Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco (10) during the second half of an MLS game against the New England Revolution in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, May 12, 2018. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Toronto FC was back in training on Tuesday ahead of its home game against Orlando City later this week.

Here are some news and notes from the day’s practice.

MUST WIN? NOT YET

After nine matches, TFC sits second-last in the Eastern Conference (and second-last in the league overall) with seven points and a 2-6-1 record, a whopping 18 points behind East-leading Atlanta United FC in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.

Saturday’s 3-2 setback away to the New England Revolution marked TFC’s sixth loss of the 2018 MLS campaign. The Reds lost only five times in the league last season. Maintaining a steely focus on the CONCACAF Champions League hurt the Reds through the early part of the MLS campaign, as did a rash of injuries that left them decimated on defence.

That being said, coach Greg Vanney isn’t worried about the slow start, downplaying suggestions that the next two matches, including Friday’s contest against Orlando at BMO Field, are must-wins.

“We’re a long way away from that. … I don’t think we’re in the red zone or whatever you want to call it,” Vanney told reporters after practice.

In 2017, Toronto set a new league record for most points in a regular season (69) and won the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy given to the team that finishes in first place. Fans and critics question whether TFC can repeat as Supporters’ Shield winners given where they sit in the standings, but that’s not Vanney’s focus right now.

“We need to be in the moment, and less thinking about the big picture. At the moment, our goals have to be focused on winning the first 15 minutes [of games], setting up the game to give ourselves the best chance to get the result, versus playing from behind,” Vanney explained.

While Vanney feels his team “has to be sharper, regardless of who is on the field,” there’s no question that the club’s top priority is to get as many players as they can back to full fitness and back in the lineup.

“One of our missions is to quickly as we can get as whole as we can, get some guys back into the fold, so we can start to shift some [other] guys into their natural positions, and get some of our relationships back together again,” Vanney stated.

SLOWLY GETTING HEALTHY

With regards to TFC’s injury crisis, it appears the club is slowing getting healthy.

Defenders Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund have been out of action for several weeks. Vanney said both players are progressing well and admitted there’s a chance they could play on Friday.

“It’ll [depend] on how much they progress over the course of this week, how they respond to getting into [full training] sessions. We’ll see how the week goes,” Vanney said.

Defender Chris Mavinga came on as second-half substitute against the Revolution (only his second MLS appearance this season) and trained with the team on Tuesday. Vanney said the Frenchman appears to have finally turned the corner.

“He felt good coming out of it, and that was a positive sign for Chris. Provided he gets through [this week’s] sessions, I think he’s back into the fold,” Vanney said.

Gregory van der Wiel should be available versus Orlando after he sat out the loss in New England. The Dutch defender has been dealing with an Achilles issue all season. Vanney wanted to give him the weekend off as a precaution and to give him a chance to recuperate.

Midfielder Nico Hasler (quad strain) and left fullback Justin Morrow (calf) remain on the sidelines, and neither will feature against Orlando. While Hasler is close to returning, Morrow is not yet ready to rejoin the team in full training sessions.

“[Morrow] will hopefully start doing the physical work and the stuff to get himself back into shape on the field and back into training,” Vanney revealed.

Forward Jozy Altidore (foot) and defender Drew Moor (quad tear) remain out long-term. Forward Sebastian Giovinco is suspended for Friday’s game after picking up a red card in the loss to New England.

STOP CONCEDING EARLY

It wasn’t the best start on Saturday in New England for TFC, conceding twice inside the opening seven minutes of the match. This continued a disturbing trend for Toronto, as it has now coughed up six goals in the opening 10 minutes across five games in MLS and CONCACAF Champions League play this season.

Vanney isn’t pleased with this, but he does feel it has more to do with the TFC’s injury issues and guys being asked to play out of position rather than a lack of concentration.

“When we have everybody healthy and guys in their natural positions, when you concede the first goal, it isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. We’ve proven over the last year that we can recover from that and be fine,” Vanney stated.

“We dug ourselves a pretty big hole pretty early in [New England]. In general, how we start games has to be better, how we starts halves to be a little bit better – our positional discipline, our awareness of each other. Some of that gets lost when you’re constantly shuffling guys around.”

VANNEY AND CASEY

Toronto’s sporting landscape underwent a major change last week when the Raptors fired head coach Dwane Casey. The NBA team made the move in the aftermath of the Raptors’ playoff elimination at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Casey, 61, had been in charge of the Raptors since the 2011-12 season, making him the longest-serving coach of a Toronto sports team. That honour now falls to Blue Jays manager John Gibbons (hired in 2013), followed by Vanney (2014).

Vanney got to know Casey at an MLSE function where they both delivered speeches, and TFC’s coach gained a healthy respect for his former counterpart.

“Class guy. Enjoyed the time [we spent together]. Just seems like the salt of the earth, a guy with full integrity, and cared a lot about what he was doing and the team. … I took a lot away from how he did somethings to help build a culture [with the Raptors].”

LOOKING AHEAD TO ORLANDO

Toronto’s next game is Friday against Orlando City at BMO Field. The teams met twice in 2017, with TFC winning both times.

The Florida club features a pair of former Toronto players in goalkeeper Joe Bendik and Canadian midfielder Will Johnson.

Orlando sits in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a 6-3-1 record this season, and is coming off of a 2-1 home loss to Atlanta United.

“They’ve got off to a good start. They’ve been stingy about getting results – not always playing great, but finding ways to get a result out of it,” Vanney offered.

“[They’ve] found ways to get wins, regardless of having great performances or not having great performances. There’s something to be said for that.”

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